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It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling

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Despite soaring rhetoric about unity, those on different sides of the political spectrum are attributing the recent violence in Dallas and Baton Rouge to essentially two different causes. One side blames white police officers for misjudging and mistreating black men, while another blames the BlackLivesMatter movement for refusing to acknowledge rampant criminality in the black community. Both sides, however, are missing the bigger picture. What killed Alton Sterling was ultimately not simply bad policing or bad character, it was bad economics. At the root of this tragedy and others like it is one major and common cause: poverty.

I teach on the law faculty at Southern University, an historically black university in the northern part of Baton Rouge—not far from where Alton Sterling was killed. Just before his death, Alton made his living by selling CDs in front of a convenience store in a part of the city that was already in serious decline well before the Great Recession hit in 2008. The forces that shaped Alton’s life—and ultimately his death—are part of a larger, hidden narrative that transcends policing and the broken criminal justice system. It is a narrative of economic neglect, disinvestment, and discrimination.

Shortly after Alton’s death a group of black leaders pushed for a boycott of certain businesses in the southern part of the city. The boycott received little attention because, for the most part, it was not very effective. It did little to slow business and, as one reporter noted, “the public can’t see much of a connection between local commerce and what happened to Sterling.” What does commerce have to do with cops shooting a black man anyway? The answer is: everything.

Economic conditions loom large and play a significant role in North Baton Rouge. One of the reasons for the boycott was to keep North Baton Rouge dollars in North Baton Rouge. But the problem was and is, there aren’t that many places to spend those dollars north of Florida Boulevard—the great dividing line between the city’s more affluent, predominantly white area and its mostly black neighborhoods. My daily drive down the highway to Southern University reveals a landscape littered with abandoned buildings, a few struggling small businesses, and a number of large and foreboding industrial sites—lately featuring buffer strips in an attempt to address public health concerns. One of the local councilwomen lamented back in March that a dollar store chain had declined to open in the area due to worries about crime. Indeed, new businesses in the area are a rarity, as many residents complain of being forced to travel to the other side of the city for entertainment, amenities, and healthcare.

Access to basic financial services is no better. When I make the drive down Plank Road or Florida Boulevard—both major thoroughfares—the streetscape is filled with numerous payday lending and cash advance stores, notorious for targeting financially distressed individuals who easily become trapped in endless cycles of debt. And it’s no surprise that they’re in this particular area either—local groups report that North Baton Rouge’s disproportionately African American, low-income population has long served as a prime target for predatory lending. Conversely, there are few mainstream financial institutions in the area to provide affordable credit and traditional banking services to residents.

The reason for these troubles has to do with years of economic neglect and bad policymaking—forces that have caused this important part of the city, like so many black communities, to slide into poverty. And the connection between Alton Sterling and the economics of North Baton Rouge is this—the anxiety being felt between members of the black community and police is deeply intertwined with the economic distress of North Baton Rouge itself. Indeed, black communities across the United States have felt the strain of economic decline for decades now. Since the Great Recession, the St. Louis Fed reports that black unemployment remains high (8.6 percent compared to the national average of 4.9 percent). Other data shows that wages remain in decline, with black men earning 74.8 percent of what white men earn. Access to affordable mortgage credit also remains a huge problem. In the run-up to the 2008 crisis a significant portion of subprime loans were given to African American borrowers. This was particularly true of higher-earning black women who, according to a study by the Consumer Federation of America, were five times as likely to receive a subprime mortgage loan than upper-income white men. National real estate groups like Zillow report that black would-be homeowners still have a very hard time getting a mortgage loan and are consistently and disproportionately denied credit. And when they do receive credit, they are likely to pay 105 percent more than their white counterparts, according to a 2016 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

This pattern of economic decline is important. It informs how society perceives these neighborhoods and those who call them home. Police and law enforcement are no different. Just as banks refuse to lend and businesses refuse to open north of Florida Boulevard and in struggling communities across the country, so too do attitudes change when we cross the color line. The poverty mindset is powerful in that it leads to a real sense of despair, particularly in young people. Moreover, it results in feelings of marginalization and hopelessness. Outsiders, in turn, see these neighborhoods through the lens of the stereotypes that accompany poverty and economic deterioration—visions of fear and crime, rather than of home and community.

Ultimately, one the greatest lessons to be learned from Alton Sterling’s death is the economic one—one that comes home to me each day as I drive over the color line and into North Baton Rouge on my way to campus. It’s a wake-up call as to the world in which the man selling CDs in front of a corner store lived, and how he and others like him are perceived and the challenges they face in North Baton Rouge and in other economically struggling communities of color in America. Assets worth saving merit investment. North Baton Rouge and communities like it are worthy assets.

It’s time to do some investing.

Chris Odinet is the Horatio C. Thompson Endowed Assistant Professor of Law at the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, LA, where he specializes in commercial/consumer finance and property law.

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